Thursday night was Annalise, a near-perfect game of Gothic horror. This was the best game I’ve played since Apocalypse World, with which it shares some ancestry.
The game says that it’s “written in the tradition of role-playing games, but works in different ways”, and that’s true. It’s pretty deep in post-Forge indie-brain-damage land,1 but if you’re the audience for that—and we are—it delivers a play experience you won’t want to let stop.
So, the game is good in part because, at every level, it reinforces unity of effect. The biggest realization we had was that the outcomes of “moments” (as they’re called) need to be shaped like knives: they need to cut deep, but narrow. In a game about a vampire, that is exactly the shape you want the mechanics to encourage.
The dice mechanic is only a small part of the game’s overall mechanics, but it’s worth talking about. It’s descended from Vincent Baker’s Otherkind. You lay out a number of possible orthogonal outcomes, some positive and some negative, and roll a die for each. You then assign the dice, with low values meaning consequences hit hard or achievements barely happen, and high values meaning consequences are avoided or achievements are rocked. Every time you roll, it asks you, the player, a question about how you value the various options on the table. This is why making them knife-like is great: which of these blades would you like to use? Which would you like to stab you?
The other big features of the game are the coin mechanic (which largely acts as a limit on the ways you can fiddle with the dice mechanic), and the system of claims.
The coin mechanic is, as John put it, the best coin mechanic he’s ever seen. We’re still not sure why, but part of it is that it involves a lot of coins. We had a table covered in glass beads. This allows you to make something more fine-grained than a more restricted coin mechanic, and lets you really state what you care about.
Claims are just beautiful. Completely wonderful. I want to use them in everything now. Basically, when someone else introduces some fictional element, you can claim it (sometimes for free, sometimes for a cost), and then you are the arbiter of that motif. You can mention its inclusion in someone else’s scene, you can use it to fiddle with the dice, and you must also keep an eye out for when and where it would be good to introduce. This really helps encourage powerful and gothic motifs.
Somewhere between all these things, the game pulls you forward, like Apocalypse World does. Everything about the outcomes forces ideas for future scenes. The claims work as clues or hints at the mystery of the vampire, but also just as rich texture for the story. The game was successfully, beautifully claustrophobic. It felt, at times, like being in a slowly tightening velvet noose. When you have a small thing in a smaller space, it gains a lot of power. To take an example from our game, when you’re just a dude, the fact that your girlfriend hasn’t texted you back is potent.
One warning: the text has some problems, but they’re not crippling. Just things like forward references and unfulfilled promises of future explanation. You can get past that, for an amazing game.
- Which means that it’s a great game to play with your non-gamer friends; it’s very accessible and probably interesting to people who don’t want to get near D&D. [↩]